Throughout the late 19th century, and well into the 1950′s, Africans and in some cases Native Americans, were kept as exhibits in zoos. Far from a relic from an unenlightened past, remnants of such exhibits have continued in Europe as late as the 2000′s. Above photograph is from Brussels, Belgium in 1958
I stumbled, quite inadvertently, across an interesting, complete misreading of Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” by those ivory tower ensconced pundits that so love to interpret (project themselves into) the working of a great mind.
Kafka’s short story is of an ape captured in Africa and details (in the ape’s own words) the process of his assimilation to European culture.
According to the several pundits:
Walter Herbert Sokel has suggested that the story speaks to a conflict “between internal and external continuity in the ape’s existence”
Nicholas Murray briefly suggests in his 2004 biography of Kafka that the story is a satirization of Jews’ assimilation into Western culture.
The story’s references to the protagonist’s “apish past” (“äffisches Vorleben”) have led some literary theorists to associate the story with evolutionary theory.
Kafka may have been influenced by German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler’s The Mentality of Apes, also published in 1917.
Gregory Radick suggests that a more likely inspiration for Kafka was the work of the American psychologist Lightner Witmer. In 1909 Witmer staged a widely publicized test of the mental abilities of a vaudeville chimp named Peter. This test, conducted in front of a panel of scientists, included a demonstration of Peter’s ability to say several words, including “momma.”
Other than Kafka likely incorporating element of Witmer’s ‘panel of scientists’ as the ‘academy’ and borrowing the name ‘Peter’ for his ape’s sobriquet “Red Peter”, all of the above are clear fails. In fact Kafka gave away (in plain sight) in his short story the fact ‘A Report to an Academy’ is a lampoon of European cultural mentality based on the 19th & 20th centuries commonplace phenomenon of ‘The Human Zoo.’
From the later 19th Century history of the ‘human zoo’…
Carl Hagenbeck of Germany ran exhibits of what he called, “purely natural,” populations, usually East Asian Islanders, but in 1876, he also sent a collaborator to the Sudan to bring back, “wild beasts and Nubians.” The traveling Nubian exhibit was a huge success in cities like Paris, London, and Berlin
From Kafka’s ‘Report to an Academy’…
A hunting expedition sent out by the firm of Hagenbeck—by the way, I have drunk many a bottle of good red wine since then with the leader of that expedition—had taken up its position in the bushes by the shore when I came down for a drink at evening among a troop of apes
Kafka’s legacy is detailing the cruelty and ugliness of European culture and mentality, whether in ‘The Penal Colony‘ or ‘The Metamorphosis‘ in works where cruelty is indulged in a culture that prefers appearances conceal the real nature of things, and where those concealed things are discovered behind the many hypocrisies employed to mask the European ugliness and violence.
A Report to an Academy is in this mold, where Kafka posits the real nature of freedom and all of its beauty must be surrendered and be conformed to the White anthropomorphic expectation … to escape The Human Zoo. But this escape is at best superficial because of those physical traits Black people possess that White Europeans interpret as relating Blacks to apes. Blacks, like apes, in Kafka’s quite accurate perception, can never be peer to the European whose prejudice is an innate, immutable cultural supremacism based in a superficial narcissism of a White appearance.
The pundits can surmise Kafka’s story is about whatever they please, Jewish assimilation, apes and ape mentality, evolution or whatever else their idle imaginations fancy, but at the end of the day it is clearly about the Carl Hagenbeck in every White person shaped by the too frequent primitive prejudices found in European cultural mentality. No matter the ape, the White European cultural metaphor for Black, had made every demanded conformity, the members of the academy only see an ape:
In 1906, the amateur anthropologist Madison Grant, who was the head of the New York Zoological Society, put a Congolese pygmy Ota Benga, on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The display was in the primate exhibit, and Ota was often made to carry around chimpanzees and other apes. Eugenicist and zoo director William Hornaday labeled Ota, “The Missing Link.” The public flocked to see the display –
A Report to an Academy, in which Kafka’s sympathies are with the ape throughout, is about the racism endemic to White Europeans and fits the psychological mold of a people inclined to colonialism perfectly; whether the Belgian of the Congo in Kafka’s day or those White Europeans occupying today’s Palestine:
“I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it” –Franz Kafka